Off The Map Flashback #1: Two Steps from Victory
The boulder I was climbing broke free of the mountain, and suddenly I was dancing atop it like a world-class barrel roller, trying to keep from falling beneath its mass and getting crushed. I hopped across to the other boulders that were simultaneously tumbling down the mountainside, and somehow I managed to leap from the edge of the rockslide onto stable ground.
That was scary. Sections of this ridgeline had broken loose during the record-breaking flood event of 2013, and apparently the boulders involved in that landslide had yet to settle into their resting positions. I decided to change course and hike towards a slope covered with black and green lichen, for the organic crust indicated that the rocks had remained in place for several decades and weren’t likely to roll anytime soon. One avalanche a day was sufficient for my tastes.
Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was currently hiking, had been close to the epicenter of a weeklong rainstorm last autumn. Biblical amounts of water had been unleashed into the canyons along Colorado’s Front Range. Homes were ravaged, roadbeds were chewed away, and quaint little mountain towns were cut off from the outside world for several days. Miles of highway had to be reconstructed afterwards, and from the helicopter footage I saw of the flood’s aftermath, it must have taken a herculean effort by these communities to restore access before the summer tourist season began.
Most visitors to the National Park confine their explorations to established trails and roads. Because I used to work as a guide within the park, leading families to popular mountaintops and lakes, my personal visits tend to be more… unorthodox. Today’s mission was to scale three outcroppings on the side of a prominent mountain range: the Little Matterhorn, the Gable, and Castle Rock. I had already climbed the peaks they were attached to – Knobtop and Gabletop. Those summits were boring. But each mountain possessed at least one icon that projected from its breast, and these rocky hood ornaments were more distinctive and memorable than the peaks themselves. Together, they made a nice set of trophies, and I was determined to collect them all.
The first feature, the Little Matterhorn, jutted out from the front of Knobtop Mountain like the prow of a ship. Gaining the slender ridgeline was easy, but accessing the farthest tip of the Matterhorn required careful navigation. My route snaked around and over several large boulders along the knife-edge ridge, any one of which felt like it could roll out from underneath me like the smaller rocks had done on the slopes below.
I reached the tip of the monolith just as gathering stormclouds began to wring out some of their moisture. One pinnacle down, two to go. My next challenge was to drop one thousand feet into Tourmaline Gorge and climb up to where The Gable hung above Fern Lake. One of my books suggested descending a snow gully, but it looked far too precipitous to attempt without an ice axe. So I made my own path by plunging down the steep northern flank of the Matterhorn, hopping down grassy banks and altering my course whenever cliffs became too sheer to traverse.
I was almost to the bottom of the gorge when the angle of the mountainside became too vertical to continue. It was frustrating and disheartening, but I saw no way to easily slide down the last thirty feet. I would need to backtrack halfway up the Matterhorn in order to scout out an alternate route.
One possibility warranted investigation, however. A tight crevice penetrated the band of cliffs, offering a seductive path to the valley floor. But the crack measured only as wide as my shoulders, and instead of possessing an evenly-sloping floor, the cleft contained a series of six-foot drops where handholds were nearly non-existent. I was looking at the world’s most confining and dangerous staircase. If I fell down those steps, there would be no recovery.
I climbed down as far as I dared, then scrambled back up the stairs so I could sit for a while and ponder how badly I wanted to risk the final two steps. Searching for a detour would probably cost too much time. On the other hand, the earlier rainshower had made the rocks more slippery than I would have liked. As I was dwelling on my decision, the clouds overhead began to release a second batch of raindrops onto the side of the Little Matterhorn. Time was up. If I was going to do this thing, it had to be now.
First, I tried texting my girlfriend so that someone would know I was about to attempt a boneheaded move, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. Nevertheless, I headed down the stairwell and faced the penultimate step once again. To ensure full mobility, I tossed down one hiking pole and used the other to gently lower my backpack to the next level. When I let go of the second pole, it remained standing upright, with the sharp tip pointing in my direction. Great, I thought. Now I can impale myself before I smash my head open.
I turned to face the mountain and slowly lowered myself down the ledge backwards, using my upper body and hips to push against the walls and add friction. My fingers grasped at any crevice I could find so that I wouldn’t slip before my feet touched a level surface again. Somehow, I kicked the offending pole out of the way, dropped the last six inches to the ground, and then flung my arms out to brace against the sides of the crevice before my momentum carried me over the edge of the final step.
My nerves felt slightly shredded, but I repeated the process one more time and walked away from the stairwell of doom miraculously uninjured. The cliffs of Little Matterhorn were now behind me, but unfortunately, the cliffs of the Gable ridgeline still lay ahead. And beyond that, the battlements of Castle Rock also needed to be scaled. None of these routes had trails; instead, I had to bushwhack vertically, fighting the limbs of trees and bushes the entire way and gaining countless scratches in the process. But after four hours of mucking about, I acquired my last two trophies. And as beaten up as I undoubtedly looked, I still managed to hitch a ride out of the National Park, which allowed me to recover my jeep and find a place to camp for the night before darkness fell.
I could have sworn that the ordeal was over. But by far, the most painful experience of the day - and perhaps the year - occurred when I was safely ensconced in my tent that evening. I had wrapped my injured left ankle in athletic tape as an experiment this morning, and it had felt amazingly strong… better than any time since I’d twisted it a month ago. However, I’d neglected to shave the hairs from my lower leg before applying the tape, and when I ripped off my handiwork, all the hairs came with it. Every single one. I can’t remember the last time I screamed so loud. Funny how our most painful injuries tend to be self-inflicted.